Top US Court hears free speech claim by anti-gay church

Church has disrupted many funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, Afghanistan.

Last Updated: Oct 07, 2010, 10:37 AM IST

Washington: The US Supreme Court weighed whether an anti-gay religious group that pickets military funerals with signs that read "Thank God for dead soldiers" is exercising its right to free speech or invading a grieving family`s privacy.

With large crowds gathered outside, the nine justices heard arguments from a lawyer for the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who said the case was about free speech, and a lawyer for the father of 20-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq and whose funeral was picketed by members of the church.

Snyder`s funeral in 2006 was a private event that was disrupted by private individuals who had "specifically targeted the Snyder family by name”, argued Sean Summers, lawyer for the father of the fallen Marine.

Summers said the US Constitution`s first amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to free speech, had no role to play in the case pitting the Snyder family against Westboro Baptist church, who have disrupted many funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Westboro Baptists’ lawyer, Margie Phelps, daughter of church patriarch John Phelps, argued that Snyder had intentionally turned his son`s funeral into a public media event and the protesters had shown up to debate with him and others attending the funeral "on the sins of America and the wages of war”.

The First Amendment protected their right to do that, she said.

Margie Phelps told reporters later that publishing an obituary turned a private figure into a public one, and their funeral into a public event.

The church to which she belongs believes that soldiers` deaths are God`s punishment on the United States because the country tolerates homosexuality.

"All we wanted to do was bury Matt in a decent, civilised way," an emotional Albert Snyder told reporters on the steps of the court after the hearing.

"But the Phelpses` conduct was so extreme, it`s beyond the bounds of basic human decency," he added.

Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with attorneys general from 47 other states in support of the Snyders that the Phelpses had "attacked, denigrated and violated" the "solemn right of privacy in one of the most sacred traditions of human civilisation”.

"Mr Snyder is a private individual, he`s entitled to have a funeral in a private way. The First Amendment does not allow the Westboro Church to hijack that event," Six said.

Nearly half the US Senate has also filed an amicus brief in support of Snyder, as have several veterans` organisations.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in early 2011.

Bureau Report